Friday, November 20, 2009

The Baroness

In an aviator's cap and striped suit of her own design, circa December 1915.
Posing/performing circa 1915-16.
Portrait of Bernice Abbott, circa 1924.
Brittany Murphy as the Baroness in a shoot for the New York Times Magazine, circa 2002.

Orpheus reference, circa 1915.

It’s funny, just I am being called out for letting my blog limp along… I’ve been working on a more cohesive essay. It certainly is true that since this summer, my posting has been {ahem} sporadic. But there were quite a few things going down that I needed to tend to. And though I’d like to think that my recent activity prefigures a return to writing, in truth, I can make no such claim.

All I can do is what I’ve always done: advocate for working, thinking, and telling jokes.

This summer, instead of steadying my outward gaze after things shifted, I began to look inward. I began a slightly compulsive and utterly self-indulgent journey through art time. That is, I started with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and moved my way through several biographies and biographical sketches of many of the people living in post WWI Paris, characters who’d been referenced in “Feast.” Individuals who now are so deeply entrenched in the canon of 20th Century Art (caps intentional), that is almost impossible to think of them as living, breathing people.

But they were. And they were as deeply flawed, perhaps more so than the rest of us. And so, not only is it instructive from the art historian’s perspective, it’s instructive for actively practicing artists to see that things like living situations, money, recognition, and the struggle to find balance between vision and market are issues modern artists have always been forced to deal with.

But I digress.

In the course of reading many of these biographies, one person’s name kept popping up as an aside, as a kind of internal joke, cited as equal parts inspiration and damnation.

The Baroness Elsa von Freytag Lorninghoven, was born in 1874 in Swinemude, Germany. She was older than many of her later friends and lovers, and writer Irene Gammel cites her as a living example of “decadent old Europe.” While discussing “old Europe’s decadence,” it is worth noting that Elsa married her title—she was not born to it. But even after she divorced the Baron, she kept the title.

Gammel’s book, Baroness Elsa: Gender, DaDa, and everyday Modernity, examines von Freytag-Loringhoven’s life through the lens of feminist theory with gender overtones. That is to say instead of letting the Baroness’s work (poetry and assemblage for the most part) and “performances” speak for themselves, Gammel goes as far to equate Elsa’s voracious, aggressive sexuality with a conscious prefiguring of the role of women in the 20th century.

Baroness Elsa, filled as it is with biographical details, photographs, and poetry is a valuable, if curious source of material that presents a decidedly less favorable view of some of art history’s favorite heroes. But therein is the crux of my disagreement with the book…while creating in the Baroness a figure of sexual heroism and freedom, Gammel’s book also seems to inherently take to task those surrounding Elsa. While at the same time, revealing that Elsa herself, after seducing or “sexteaching” her companions then took this as a sign/agreement that they would support her, and continue to do so even after they split. Opportunism anyone?

While overall the book is extraordinarily researched, and makes one reconsider the origins of some of Duchamp and Man Ray’s breakthrough pieces (she is rumored to be the model in his 1921 Coat Stand and there is circumstantial evidence that suggest she sent Duchamp his urinal), as well as the importance of DaDa and the origins of the Little Review, it does seem to vacillate between a shrilly self-righteous tone and one of hero worship. Consider this passage describing a photograph of the aging Baroness en costume*:

“Her Joan of Arc helmet of hair is decorated with an oddly feminine headband like the one she wore in Lechter’s Orpheus. Surprised by the camera in midpose, her body is bent over; her self-made chiffon dress reveals the nude body underneath. The viewer gleans a look at her strong athletic legs and her extended back; her feet are tightly wrapped in ballet shoes laced around her ankles, the right foot posing on the toe, as if she were a ballerina. Her studio surroundings look makeshift, as if to announce that creative √©lan arises in the midst of chaos […] here we find the paraphernalia of her performance art, evidence that by December 1915 the Baroness was performing herself. She has already fully developed her trademark personality: caustic, vitriolic, daring, pushy, confrontational, shameless, shocking, and aggressive.”

*pictured above, labeled Orpheus reference.

Insofar as the very act of writing about something is a tacit acknowledgement of it’s power, this passage, especially when contrasted with the image to which is refers seems like a stretch.

The image could just as easily be read as an aging, mentally ill woman descending deeper into her own psychosis. Living in chaos and filth and because of her personality traits, combined with her list of talents friends, has drawn someone onto her own pathology…if even for an afternoon to photograph her. Of course, it is equally possible that an enterprising photographer sought to capture her on film because of her extraordinary circumstances...high drama and banal craziness all in one.

Consider the description with which Gammel follows up her interpretation of the Baroness posing in a chiffon curtain: “Louis Bouche tells us that during this early period, the Baroness ‘lived in total disorder in the Lincoln arcade buildings with an assortment of animals, mostly mangy dogs and cats.’”

It is not von Freytag-Loringhoven’s creative output (especially her poetry) or her streetside “performances” that are being taken to task here, or even questioned. Rather, it is the tendency of writers and art historians to elevate the mundane and unpleasant facets of an individual’s life…to give them undue, unwarranted significance thereby undermining the very institution (academe) for which they stand.

Certainly it is true that Baroness Elsa prefigured performance artists like Leigh Bowery, Michael Alig, and Soigne Deluxe. In addition to breezing through the lives of the “Paris set,” (but first in NYC) who eventually found themselves to be international darlings, she no doubt struck a blow for feminism, art, and fasion. But in ascribing noble motives and heroic strength to her every move, it devalues what she actually did, turning her—and by extension the writer--into a parody of feminist thought/action.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I found this image on my friend Yvonne Lozano's Facebook page, from artist Mary Atwood. I love how the grandeur of the smoke/exhaust contrasts with the small determinedness of the shuttle itself.

Of all the things our government wastes money on, I am down with NASA.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I found this on youtube, from one of my favorite young photographers: Dana Goldstein (here). It reminds me of roller skating backwards.

(forward to the one minute mark for the impatient).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

OUCH or painting is ever the challenge; the goal

Damien Hirst's new paintings are being panned left and right. Without proper access to them (or to a good magazine reproduction, it's hard for me to say what I think. Though I think I like some of the ideas and direction...the paint handling itself seems tight and fussy, and not in a good way (but that judgement s made through online slide-shows...not the best representations).

Either way, reading the press surrounding the new stuff (especially the vitrolic British press) is satisfying in a biting sort of way.

Here are the fun-filled links:

The Guardian

The Observer (via The Guardian)